HC Deb 02 February 1998 vol 305 cc818-24

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jamieson.]

10.4 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

I must begin by thanking the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for attending this Adjournment debate on the subject of big cats in Norfolk. My objective in asking for the debate was to establish ministerial responsibility for monitoring big cats and to consider how we can best evaluate any evidence of the probability of big cats living in our countryside. This is a subject which, as hon. Members may know, has excited a great deal of public and media interest, especially in my constituency of Mid-Norfolk.

Over the past 20 years, there has been a steady increase in the number of sightings of big cats in many parts of the United Kingdom. These are often described as pumas, leopards or panthers. A survey carried out in 1996 claimed sightings of big cats in 34 English counties, so Norfolk's big cat has to compete with, among others, the Fen tiger, the beast of Bodmin, the Durham puma, the Nottingham lion and the cougar of Cupar. I must say that many of these sound like the nicknames of hon. Members.

Norfolk has had its fair share of sightings of big cats. Last year, Norfolk police received reports of 54 sightings of big cats from July to December, and they still receive, on average, reports of two sightings a week. In my constituency, there have been reported sightings at Dereham, Beetley, Lenwade and Crostwick, to name just a few places.

I must commend the Norfolk police who have consistently taken sightings of big cats seriously and who have attempted to monitor them. There are 36 volunteer police officers trained as wildlife liaison officers who participate in this monitoring. I must also commend two of my local newspapers—the Eastern Daily Press and the Evening News—which have taken a responsible attitude to the sightings and have genuinely sought to inform public opinion.

Many sightings have been reported in my constituency by members of the public who were out walking their dogs or driving down country roads, often at dawn or at dusk. Usually the sighting is of a big cat, frequently described as a puma or leopard. There have also been a number of incidents in which it has been claimed that ewes, lambs and horses have been attacked—and, in some cases, killed—and have received injuries more extensive than could have been inflicted by dogs or foxes. Of course, the fact remains that, despite many sightings and some superficial evidence, we do not yet have authoritative evidence that big cats are at large in Mid-Norfolk or, for that matter, in other parts of the UK.

How should we regard the sightings of big cats in Mid-Norfolk? It could be merely an extension of folklore going back to the 18th century. Perhaps Old Shuck or Black Shuck, the mythical large dog which roamed our Norfolk landscape looking for his master all those years ago, has returned to haunt his descendants—perhaps, but unlikely. Perhaps it is merely a question of farmers looking for compensation on a scale the likes of which they have never seen—perhaps, but unlikely. Perhaps our thriving tourist industry in Mid-Norfolk is looking for its equivalent of the Loch Ness monster or the hound of the Baskervilles to attract even more tourists—perhaps, but unlikely.

Some reports are undoubtedly hoaxes. At least one recent sighting reported to the police suggested that the large cats had been brought down by the Martians, and there is always a suspicion that a few sightings may be the consequences of late-night spiritual imbibing. However, the overwhelming majority of sightings of big cats, not only in my constituency but elsewhere in the UK, have been reported by perfectly normal, rational members of the public.

I suspect that many people have not reported sightings on the ground that they would be considered eccentric, to say the least. Even if one accepts that in the majority of cases, people have genuinely mistaken large domestic cats, dogs or foxes for big cats, there is still an element of probability that, at least in some cases, there may be a big cat explanation.

A number of distinguished wildlife experts have suggested that some pumas or leopards could have been released into the countryside when the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 made it illegal to own such animals without a licence. They would have been able to roam over a wide area of countryside, live off wild or domestic animals and possibly breed. I realise that this case is not directly comparable, but I am old enough to remember as a child in Norfolk the spread of the coypu 40 years ago as a consequence of several escaping from captivity and breeding in the wild on such a scale that they threatened to destroy our river banks.

So what is to be done? How do we best establish a rational method, at national and local levels, to monitor the sightings of big cats and to evaluate the evidence scientifically? Last year, I attempted to establish ministerial responsibility and learnt from a written answer that The Home Office has no responsibility for monitoring the sightings of big cats'—[Official Report, 1 December 1997; Vol. 302, c. 49.] In practice, monitoring is done very conscientiously at local level by the police. A similar question to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food produced the following reply from the Minister: A number of Departments have responsibilities in relation to 'big cats'. This Department is concerned with the safety of livestock, the Home Office for the safety of people and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions for the legal keeping of such animals by, for example, zoos and circuses. These Departments co-ordinate their actions according to the circumstances of the case."—[Official Report, 2 December 1997; Vol. 302, c. 149.] Many of us, in one way or another, are old Whitehall warriors, and that final sentence gave it away. There is obviously a certain element of pass the parcel.

I realise that the Minister is here to reply to an Adjournment debate on big cats in Mid-Norfolk as the matter relates to the safety of livestock. In the past, his Department has been involved in evaluating evidence of big cats. One case involved the so-called "Beast of Bodmin" when his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), asked the Agricultural Development Advisory Service to investigate the carcases of dead farm animals and a number of photos and videos allegedly showing big cats. The conclusion of the study proved that the farm animals had been victims of large dogs and the photographic evidence proved the cats to be domestic. I understand that the Minister has promised another investigation into big cats in the west country, where local public opinion is somewhat sceptical about the evidence.

I should like to suggest two positive measures for the Minister to consider. At national and local levels, it is logical that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should be the lead Government Department for co-ordinating the monitoring and evaluation of evidence concerning big cats. In Norfolk, a proper scientific evaluation of evidence—particularly footprints, droppings or carcases of dead farm or domestic animals—could be undertaken using DNA tests at the Food Science Laboratory at Norwich. That would enable us to distinguish between fact and fiction. The facility should be widely publicised locally, so that if farm or domestic animals are savagely attacked or killed, they can be examined scientifically. If the Minister is responsive to my proposals and they are implemented, we would be nearer proving or disproving the weighty question of whether there are big cats at large in Mid-Norfolk.

10.13 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)

I should like to make one or two brief points in support of what my hon. Friend has said. In my constituency—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. Can the hon. Gentleman satisfy me that he has received the agreement of his hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) and the Minister before making an intervention?

Mr. Robertson

I apologise. I have not spoken to the Minister about it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

These Adjournment debates are intended for the benefit of the Member proposing the subject. Another Member can intervene only by special arrangement. I do not know whether the Minister has any objection.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley)

I have no objection to the hon. Gentleman making a brief contribution.

Mr. Robertson

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise to you and to the House.

I have been visited more than once by farmers in my area who have shown me photographic evidence of attacks on farm animals, which I do not believe could have been carried out by anything other than big cats. Lambs with their heads ripped completely off and fang marks of a width that no dog could produce are part of the evidence. One of the problems that farmers in my area have—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am not attempting to hound the hon. Gentleman, but this is a debate about big cats in Mid-Norfolk. He must speak on that subject.

Mr. Robertson

I shall end by saying that it seems that the problem—this may well be the case in Mid-Norfolk —is that people are reluctant to seek publicity because of stories such as those about the beast of Bodmin.

10.15 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley)

I understand the points that the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) has made. The possibility of one or more big cats living or breeding in the countryside is a serious issue. I listened with great interest to the hon. Gentleman's extensive knowledge of the history of sightings of big cats. As he rightly said, many allegations and comments have been made for many years and none have been substantiated.

Many sightings have turned out to involve domestic cats. I remember that not many years ago London zoo was called out to deal with an escaped lioness in north London. It turned out to be a large ginger torn cat sunbathing on a wall. I own a fairly big cat. Fortunately, he finds it too much of an exertion to go far from my house, so he does not disturb the neighbours on his perambulations.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the division of responsibility between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Home Office. The Ministry's main responsibility on big cats is confined to whether the presence of a big cat poses a threat to the safety of livestock. To make a rough and ready split, reports of big cats eating people would be a matter for the Home Office, whereas reports of big cats eating livestock are a matter for MAFF. That is a curious division of labour, but that is roughly how it is.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that where it is believed such a threat exists, MAFF will take action to investigate the case and evaluate any available evidence, as it has done in the past, particularly on the beast of Bodmin.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I should like to take this opportunity to ask the Minister to use the proper title. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) referred to the beast of Bodmin. It is the beast of Bodmin moor. The worthy people of Bodmin take some exception to the incorrect description because the beast has never been seen in Bodmin.

I have a serious point about the division of responsibility and am concerned that perhaps no Minister will take responsibility. I hope that the Minister will follow the precedent established by his predecessor in response to my original request for an inquiry that MAFF be the lead Ministry on such issues. As the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk has said, there have been no attacks on human beings, despite the many sightings, but there have been many attacks on livestock. I hope that the Minister recognises that his Ministry should have primary responsibility for investigating the beast of Bodmin moor in my part of the country and for dealing with the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk.

Mr. Morley

I can confirm that. It is particularly so when the attacks involve livestock. As MAFF has facilities to investigate such reports and no other Department does, it is logical that it takes lead responsibility—and has done so with reports that it has received.

I am aware that there have been a number of alleged sightings of big cats in the Norfolk area. None has been reported to the Ministry so far, although I have noticed reports of them in the press. A major concern is the potential threat to public safety, as the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said. First, it must be ascertained whether there is a likelihood of such a cat living in the wild. Each year, there are several hundred reports of sightings of big cats throughout the country. I am sure that hon. Members agree that, however well intentioned, the vast majority of reports are not genuine sightings of big cats.

The subject generates a great deal of media interest. A reported sighting in one area is often followed by a sudden flurry in the press of reported sightings in other areas. Although reports are often made with genuine sincerity, the Ministry has to be assured that there is a genuine case to investigate. Unfortunately, it is not unknown for practical jokers to be involved—such as the one who planted the skull of a leopard in a stream near Bodmin moor. I take the point of the hon. Member for North Cornwall that, although the beast of Bodmin moor may be a tourist attraction, the beast of Bodmin is not. It turned out that the skull was from a leopard skin rug and had been planted.

Despite such reports, the Ministry takes these matters seriously. There are a number of big cats in zoos, circuses and in private ownership and it is not impossible that some of them may have escaped or been illegally released into the wild. The security of big cats held in captivity is a matter for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

The Ministry is aware that a total of 16 big cats have escaped into the wild since 1977. They include lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars and pumas, but all but two animals were at large for only one day.

I recall that at least three of the lions escaped from a circus in Grimsby. I remember it very well because one unfortunate person was quite badly savaged. He ran to the car in which his wife was sitting, but she was so terrified by the lions that she refused to open the door. I am quite sure that that was due to her fear and nothing to do with any acrimony between her and her husband.

Because there is a risk that big cats can escape into the wild and because of the threat that such animals could pose to livestock, the Ministry investigates each report in which it is alleged that livestock has been attacked. Reports to the Ministry are usually made by the farmers whose animals have been attacked. In addition, the Ministry takes note of articles in the press describing big cat incidents and will consider them if there is evidence that livestock are at risk.

Incidentally, of the 16 escaped large cats, the two that stayed at large for some time were a leopard and a puma. The leopard managed to avoid capture for seven days, after which it was cage trapped. The origin of the puma, which was captured near Inverness in 1980, is unclear, but it was quite tame and has subsequently been kept in a wildlife park. That sounds like a case of a semi-domesticated animal that was released into the wild.

On receipt of a report of a big cat, the Ministry will ask the Farming and Rural Conservation Agency, the Ministry's wildlife advisers, to contact the person who reported the sighting. The FRCA will discuss the situation with the fanner and seek to establish whether the sighting is genuine and whether any evidence can be evaluated. It will follow up all cases where there is evidence of a big cat that can be corroborated and all cases where it is alleged that livestock are being taken.

The FRCA will consider all forms of evidence, including photographs given to it by members of the public and farmers, plaster casts of paw prints and video footage. In addition, it will carry out field investigations of carcases of alleged kills for field signs of the animal responsible. That will include looking for signs of how the animal was killed and of scavenging by other animals, such as badgers, foxes, dogs or other big cats. If it is thought that a big cat may be responsible, the carcases of suspicious livestock kills will be submitted for post mortem analysis to gather more information on the cause of death.

Where a reported sighting is the only evidence, the Ministry will not usually become involved; it would not be an appropriate use of public funds to investigate such reports on the very remote possibility of finding field evidence to corroborate the sighting. I am sure that the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk understands that that would be a diversion of the Ministry's time and resources. When there is a very strong allegation—especially when stock are involved and the matter can be investigated—an investigation will of course be made, but I could not give an undertaking that the Ministry will investigate every report or every sighting unless there is strong evidence.

The Ministry must rely on evidence being submitted for proper consideration by the FRCA, and it may be indicative that much of the evidence reported in the press is not made available for public scrutiny and has not been made available for the Ministry to examine in depth.

Evidence such as plaster casts, sheep carcases, video footage and still photographs were submitted and evaluated by MAFF as part of the Ministry's investigation in 1995 of the evidence for the presence of a large exotic cat or cats in the Bodmin moor area and their possible impact on livestock. That was the investigation that the hon. Member for North Cornwall mentioned. The subsequent report, which was published, concluded that the photographs and video footage were of domestic cats and that the footprints were those of cats and dogs. There was no field or post mortem evidence to indicate the involvement of big cats in any of the livestock deaths that were followed up during the investigation.

In fact, to date, none of the investigations that the Ministry has been involved with has provided any firm evidence of the existence of big cats living in the wild. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk asked about co-ordination between Departments. I have already said, in response to the intervention by the hon. Member for North Cornwall, that MAFF will take the lead in the investigation and that, when there is evidence that is worthy of investigation, we shall ensure that an investigation is carried out.

It is impossible to say categorically that no big cats are living wild in Britain, so it is only right and proper that the Ministry should continue to investigate serious claims of their existence—but only when there is a threat to livestock and when there is clear evidence that can be validated. I am afraid that, until we obtain stronger evidence, the reports of big cats are still in the category of the mythical creatures that the hon. Gentleman mentioned in his opening remarks.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Ten o'clock.